Three Countries, One Six-Hour Run

Sometime in the last year, my friend Greg casually mentioned to me that it was possible to run across Liechtenstein.

“Oh yeah, we did it,” he said.

I guess I knew that the country was tiny. But – not to diminish Greg’s running chops – it didn’t occur to me just how tiny it was. 62 square miles. I started looking into it and, of course, there are quite a few writeups of how to “cross an entire country on foot!” The shortest way across is about eight miles. A fast runner could do that in an hour.

The idea of crossing the whole country definitely appealed to me. I knew that I had to do it. But an eight-mile run along the flat part of the country? That didn’t really inspire me. I started looking at the map. There were mountains along the Liechtenstein-Austria border. That is more my speed.

When my friend Steve mentioned wanting to get out this weekend to get “above the clouds” (it has rained nonstop in Switzerland for, I swear, months), I pitched him the idea. So there it was, Saturday morning and we were on a train to Buchs, Switzerland, just over an hour from Zurich, gleefully making jokes about our day “out of the country”.

From the Buchs train station it’s just a few hundred meters to the Rhine River, which forms the border with Liechtenstein. We paused for a photo. Whee! We’ve already come so far!

First border crossing: check!

First border crossing: check!

On we ran, through Schaan, the largest municipality in the principality of Liechtenstein. It has 5,800 people and houses a major manufacturer of false teeth, as well as Hilti, a power drill company. The downtown was cute, but didn’t look that different than Switzerland.

There are actually more companies than people in Liechtenstein, and it’s a financial capital. It’s a tax haven for those too choosy to pick Switzerland, so the place is awash in money – if not residents. A major global consulting firm seemed to sponsor the local tennis courts and we saw the names of more than a few companies we recognized.

After making it to Schaan we started climbing, first along a paved street past a convent, then on a jogging path through the woods and finally into a picturesque small village complete with grazing cows and beautiful old wooden houses, meticulously kept up. We could see the Rhine below us, sweeping its way towards Lake Constance; the Swiss mountains to the north; the Austrian Alps to the south; more Swiss peaks southeast and west. A few grannies cheerfully greeted us from across the street as a got a quick drink from the public water fountain. In the Alps, the water is always delicious, especially when you’ve been running uphill.

And above us, always, was the ridge we were set to traverse. It was rocky and looked epic, even though I knew it was not as tall, remote, or technical as many places I’ve been in Switzerland. We wound up and up along a forest road until, almost eleven kilometers in and after climbing about 1,000 meters, we found ourselves in the typical alpine meadows you associate with Austria and Switzerland. There was a mountain hut up the hill on the left and we passed our first other hikers of the day, three women happily chatting away.

I probably would have ski-walked a few more of those 1,000 meters of climbing, but Steve is not a skier; he’s a runner. His backpack was heavier than mine but his shoes lighter. He’s also just faster. It wasn’t a spectacularly hot day – rain was forecast for the afternoon – but by the time we stopped after the hut we were both completely sweaty. I needed a snack so we took off our shirts and tried to let them dry in the sun.

It… didn’t work. Putting a soaking wet sweaty shirt back on is not the best thing in the world. We continued.

After only about a kilometer, mostly through the woods, we once again found ourselves in a nice meadow, this time looking out from the top of a pass over into Austria proper. And there it was: the border with Austria. After just 12 kilometers and about two hours of running uphill, we had crossed the entire country.

You can't read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the left is a stone marker planted into the ground - a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line.

You can’t read it because of the light, but the sign shows the Liechtenstein-Österreich border. To the right is a stone marker planted into the ground – a short, squat, more permanent-seeming border line. Luckily in the light, you also can’t tell just how sweaty and disgusting I have become at this point….

We had started in Switzerland, made it through Liechtenstein, and were now in Austria – but our goals were not complete. The ridge and its most charismatic peaks, the Drei Schwestern or Three Sisters, were still above us. Faced with a trail that skirted around the mountain through Austrian meadows or an alpine route that headed back toward Liechtenstein, we picked the alpine route.

We wound our way through ever-shorter stunted conifers until there were no more. It reminded me of my beloved White Mountains. The rock started and so did the metal cables to hold onto, the dizzying drop-offs below, and in a few places, metal and wooden ladders to scramble up. The Drei Schwestern were pretty spectacular. The first real peaks I’d been on this year so far, we landed just over 2,000 meters above sea level, or slightly above the top of Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in my home state of New Hampshire.

That’s not particularly tall by Swiss standards, but the view was still great. Austria and the Swiss canton of Graubunden stretched out ahead of us, peak after peak after peak still lined with snow. There was finally a cool breeze. I soaked it in: why haven’t I done this in so long?

Oh right, because it rains all the damn time. 

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool.

Our objective. Liechtenstein might not have too many mountains, because there are only so many you can fit into a postage-stamp sized slice of the Alps, but the ones it has are pretty cool. There are actually two people in the cleft of the rocks near the top, if you can spot them.

We eventually continued on the ridge, and our pace dropped precipitously (because we ourselves didn’t want to….). It was technical scrambling up and down, again holding onto metal cables bolted into the rock. What had begun as a run was now a delicate crawl. We could have gone much farther along the ridge, but after three peaks decided to bail off back down into Liechtenstein.

The path I had picked turned out to be the lightest path you could consider a marked trail in Switzerland. It was rocky and rooty and, thanks to all the recent rain, muddy. The trail was hacked into the alpine heath, with surprised-looking naked root nubs still recovering from some recent trimming.

I sort of loved it, but with his minimalist footwear Steve did not. Personally, I maintain that there are few things you can’t do in a pair of Salomon Speedcross trail runners with their beefy treads. When the company gave the Craftsbury Green Racing Project a pair of shoes each back in 2010 they hooked this one customer for life…

The forest seemed to go on forever: I could see Schaan below us now and then, and it felt like my quads were burning more and more from holding myself in check on the impossibly steep grade. But Schaan never got closer! I began to worry we were in some sort of enchanted forest that expanded with us and we would never get out.

When we realized it was nearly two in the afternoon, it all made sense. Eating lunch cleared some of the grumpiness we had both been developing from the endless, messy downhill. Soon after that we popped out of the forest and into an opulent neighborhood of modern-day castles and mansions.

I could practically taste the chlorine in the swimming pools that I knew lay just beyond each perfectly-manicured hedge. But those swimming pools were not for us, so we continued running down and down, back into Schaan. By now I was flagging – it had been well over 20 km and a lot of uphill, over 1,800 meters or almost 6,000 feet, and then the corresponding leg-destroying downhill.

Just keep running, I thought. Admit no weakness to your running buddyOkay though, he can probably tell. The bridge over the Rhine was in sight, then we were over it, back in Buchs, and I could stop. I was incredibly dehydrated and savored a lemonade bought at the train station kiosk like it was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Three countries? One run? Not too shabby. We gave ourselves a high five for being adventurous – and, as Americans, laughed to ourselves at how long it would take to run across our own country. We had to take these opportunities where they came.

The next day was sunny too.

“I hear Monaco is nice this time of year,” Steve joked.

spring resolutions.

Next winter I want more of this... and only like half as much racing.

Next winter I want more of this… and only like half as much racing.

Some people make resolutions at New Years. But I’m never very successful at keeping them.

This year I had a revelation: for me the calendar doesn’t start on January 1, but when the ski season ends and a new year begins. We’ve all kept track of it this way in our training logs for years and years, but I had never explicitly thought of it seeping into the rest of my life.

After all, semester schedules still go on. Grant cycles don’t depend on the seasons.

But emotionally, the end of the season is the time for me take stock of what happened in the last year, set goals, and decide what I want to do better – how to manage my time through the whole year, culminating in winter.

When I got back from World Championships, I started making resolutions. The first one: next year I’m not going to race as much. I’m going to enjoy skiing for skiing’s sake a bit more, and take some weekends where I just get out on the trails with no bib on.

This winter racing really did take up a lot of mental space, even though I tried to keep things low key. In the end, if you’re racing every single weekend it weighs on you no matter how relaxed any individual race experience is.

For the last two weekends I have had a blast enjoying the spring skiing in Switzerland, and I want to make certain that I do more of this mid-winter, too.

I finally checked out Melchsee Frutt, a ski area that my friend Jonas gushed about all winter. It’s outside of Lucerne and you take a bus up to the bottom of a big gondola. Then, with your skinny cross-country skis, you take the gondola up with all sorts of alpine skiers, snowboarders, and families with toboggans (alpine sledding is a big and awesome thing here – don’t believe me? Read about when I sledded Grindelwald….)

The top of the gondola is at 1900 meters. The snow is sparkling. The sun is strong. There’s a 15 k loop, which isn’t really all that much, but it’s plenty to keep you entertained. It’s one of the first times cross-country skiing in Switzerland where I have really felt, dang, I’m in the Alps.

Melkst Frust.

Melchsee Frust.

There's a dogsled outfit called "Swisskimos", which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

There’s a dogsled outfit called “Swisskimos”, which I find both genius and a little offensive at the same time.

I went there the day before Easter, and then on Easter Monday I skied 40 k in Lenzerheide. The first hour was incredible, but then I started skiing from town towards the biathlon/Tour de Ski stadium and realized that in this direction the cover was terrible and the snow was melting.

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction...

Capfeder in Lenzerheide: winter in one direction…

... with glimpses of summer on the way.

… with glimpses of summer on the way.

It was still an amazing day, though, and I had a blast using the fitness I’d accumulated over a season of racing without the pressure of, you know, racing.

This weekend I went one last time to Melchsee Frutt, with Jonas.

Smile, Jonas! You're skiing in April!

Smile, Jonas! You’re skiing in April!

One of us is more tired than the other one.

One of us is more tired than the other one.

We agreed: this was the last ski of the year. Time to summer wax the skis. Thanks skis. Til next year.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

The motley crew. Let nobody accuse me of being anti-diversity.

My second resolution: cook more diverse and interesting food, and don’t fall into ruts. When I was skiing in Craftsbury I tried to bake a lot of different fancy desserts because I had too much time on my hands. Then when I moved to Eugene, Oregon, to take a job as a research assistant, I lived for the first time in a pretty diverse city. I took advantage of the Asian and Mexican grocery stores and went on a lot of culinary adventures. Since then, I mainly cook new things when I’m at home and making dinner for my parents. It turns out okay.

But at my own apartment, I’ve been a little bit lame. Sure, I make some good food, but often I resort to things that are quick and I usually stick to the safe, central European aisles of the neighborhood grocery.

So a few days after getting back from Oslo I finally, after a year and a half, went to an Asian grocery store in Zurich. I had been saying ever since arriving that I would do it. I found good dark soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mirin (Japanese cooking wine), rice vinegar, black bean chili garlic sauce (which is the best thing ever), lots of fun noodles, oyster sauce, better tofu, and fresh cilantro.

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I already need to go back and re-stock up on a few things that I’ve run out of, as well as more things, like peanuts and light soy sauce. I’ve had a blast cooking. A few favorites: this delicious stir fry recipe (using tofu instead of chicken), hot and sour soup, and some stir fried cabbage and rice noodles.

Spicy cucumber salad (this, but using cucumber you have chopped up, salted, and drained the water off of for 15 minutes) is a new side that I’ve been making to go with basically anything.

I also bought a cookbook which I have seen have glowing reviews in multiple places. It’s called Made In India, and it’s awesome. The author, Meera Sodha, lives in Britain and sprinkles the book with stories about her family. The recipes are great, but they’re also designed to be made with ingredients you can find at a normal grocery store.

My housemates have been thrilled that I’ve cooked a bunch of new curries: chickpea curry (Chana masala), potato curry (Aloo tamatar), roasted cauliflower. Buy this book. Your housemates, family, husband, wife, coworkers, whatever – they will love you a little bit more.

My third resolution: do more squats. I actually haven’t been to the gym in over two years. Gym memberships are expensive here. There’s a university facility that I could go to for free, but I hate the atmosphere. In Switzerland sports are already such a man’s world, and not surprisingly, on a college campus the gym feels like a meat market. At 28 years old I no longer feel like participating in this “see and be seen” and “leer at the girls working out in spandex” situation.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

Skip the gross gym, but use your shoes.

When I was living in Eugene I went to a great high-intensity interval training (HIIT) program called Tabata. The details are a little different from other HIIT programs, but in the end most of these things are similar. If you are on a team or part of a training program, you don’t need any gimmicky workouts: just do what your coach says. For those of us training alone, sometimes we need extra motivation and organization.

Anyway, Jon’s Tabata program is based on just a few exercises: body-weight squats, squat-thrusts, and jumps. The workouts take just 30 minutes and they make you exhausted. You will sweat like a pig. Walking around the rest of the day your legs will shake.

But you will get strong. My legs became more powerful and I was more lean when I was doing those workouts. I have Jon’s “recipe book” for workouts and this year I’m determined to do some regularly. I need some power and fast-twitch muscles in my life.

Lastly: Productivity. It might seem like I’m pretty productive – I guess I am. I manage to do an okay job at being a PhD student and regularly produce content for FasterSkier.

But…. I could do better. In my PhD, things have gotten a bit overwhelming in the last six months. I’m stuck with a lot of data which I don’t really know how to analyze, but I should be analyzing it and writing it into manuscripts, at the same time that I continue to conceive of and execute new experiments. It’s a lot!

Just focus and get it done, for Pete's sake.

Just focus and get it done, for Pete’s sake.

When I get completely overwhelmed, my productivity crashes. It feels like I’ll never accomplish everything even if I try, so where do you even start?

This post from WhatShouldWeCallGradSchool really explains it best.

Spurred on my a comment from my housemate, I started looking into software that would keep me from logging onto facebook or checking my FasterSkier email during the work day.

Have you heard of the Pomodoro method? It sounds really dumb: you break your day into 25 minute chunks, and allow yourself five minutes in between to make a cup of tea, go for a quick walk around the building, check your email, whatever.

I’ve started using an app called Pomello which merges this technique with your to-do list. You pick a task and the timer starts counting your 25 minutes. When the 25 minutes is up, bingo! Reward yourself by replying to an email from a friend. Then you can restart the same task or pick another one. You can compare day-to-day how many of these 25-minute chunks you get done and how youre productivity is doing.

This sounds so completely trivial and pointless, but it has actually really helped me. I think it taps into some part of my innate insane competitiveness, so I do actually focus during the 25-minutes blocks. It’s short enough that you can keep yourself focused, sans distraction, for the whole time and chide yourself when you think about checking facebook. But it’s long enough that you can get some meaningful part of a task done, too.

If you’re a better worker than I am, this will seem irrelevant. But if, like me, you are getting bogged down and discouraged and reading interesting articles on the internet instead of doing your work… maybe give it a try?

Hopefully I can keep this newfound improvement to my focus through the whole year.

I think that part of the reason that “new years resolutions” never stuck for me is that if I make them on January 1, my day-to-day life if much the same before and after this magical cutoff date. I’m still on holiday (for a short time), I’m still balancing skiing and work, it’s still winter.

(The other part of why they don’t stick is that resolutions rarely work, period.)

This year, I’m thinking about them at a time when my life really is different: with the changing of the seasons, I have a real chance to start afresh. Things feel new, and like if I really wanted to change my life, I could succeed.

ten days in Norway.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop - which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

On the 16.7 k Holmenkollen loop – which is easy to reach not only from Holmenkollen, but also from other city T stops like Sognsvann.

I just got back from a trip to Norway. As always, it was phenomenal. I have nothing against Zurich – I’m pretty happy here and it is as close to an ideal situation as I could think of living in a city – but I came home thinking, why didn’t I do my PhD in Oslo?

There’s something about seeing the T-Bane packed with skiers of all ages and ability levels, or heading out to ski on a weekend midday and running into probably hundreds of people out on the trails just outside the city. It’s a city where everyone is chic and blond, usually dressed in black, very stylish. But nobody looks at you with eyes askew if you’re out in Bjørn Dæhlie ski pants and a ratty old Swix jacket.

Or, if you’re going to watch a ski race and you pull on a classic Norwegian wool sweater instead of an expensive technical jacket. Wool keeps you warm. Nobody laughs at that.

I stayed with my friend Knut in Oslo, and by the end of the week, I was thinking about what a great life it would be if, like him, I could just take the T a few stops to access hundreds of kilometers of ski trails after work every day.

Because even if Zurich is pretty darn close to optimal, from my naive, short-term-staying experience, Oslo might be just that tiny little bit closer.

But anyway. That was a lot of digressions. I headed to Oslo to cover biathlon World Championships for FasterSkier. Apparently it was snowing in Oslo on the Friday night when I was supposed to arrive, and my flight got canceled. Nearly all the other people on the plane were heading to watch World Championships and cheer for the Swiss, and we all groaned as the news came over the PA system. It’s snowing? They can’t handle snow at an airport in Norway?

I scrambled to find a new flight, thinking that there was no way that they could get a whole airplane’s worth of people rescheduled, especially if the weather continued to be bad. This involved a lot of research on my phone, and getting someone else to buy me a ticket on a different airline as I scrambled around, and then getting to the front of the customer service line and getting offered a flight that night anyway, and canceling the ticket that had just been bought (we got a full refund). I arrived to the Oslo airport at midnight and schlepped my stuff via the night bus to Knut’s house. It was around 2 a.m. and he was waiting for me… thanks Knut, you’re the best.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men's sprint.

Hanging out in the press section behind the shooting range during the men’s sprint.

Saturday and Sunday were sprint and pursuit racing, and it was pretty exciting. The crowds at Holmenkollen National Ski Arena are no joke, so when Norwegian Tiril Eckhoff won the women’s sprint and Ole Einar Bjørndalen took silver in the men’s sprint it was serious. Seriously loud. I immediately remembered why I loved this job. In the pursuit I managed to sneak onto the course and take some photos with the Holmenkollen ski jump in the background, even though I didn’t have a photo bib. (When I tried this later in the week, I got yelled at and kicked off the course. ‘doh.)

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men's pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

Emil Hegle Svendsen (Norway), Tim Burke (USA), and Quentin Fillon Maillet (France) in the men’s pursuit. This photo should never have been allowed to be taken, for I am written press, a.k.a. scum of the earth.

On the plus side, races started in the afternoon- so in the mornings I skied out of the end of the race course and into the Marka, the big forest area in the north(ish) of Oslo. The ski trails! There are so many, and they are so fun! Wide trails and narrow trails, hilly trails and flat trails, trails through bogs and trails through forests. Trails to huts that serve waffles and hot chocolate. Trails that are criss-crossed by winter hiking trails; trails that go all the way down to the edge of the city. So many trails!

On Sunday I checked out the old 16.7 k race loop, which was historically used for the famous Holmenkollen 50 k: three loops of that bad boy. Parts are still used for the current course configuration (which has a longest loop of 8.3 k). The 16.7 k has a lot of uphill, and, of course, a lot of fun downhill, but it’s a workout. I was getting tired by the end but my skis were flying and I was on real snow! Cold, dry(ish) snow. That hasn’t happened to me so many times this year. I was in heaven!

There weren’t many people who brought skis into the media center, so I always accidentally make a spectacle of myself when I do this. But the woman I was sitting next to thought it was cool.

“Now you know the course conditions for writing your story!” she said.

Yes. Exactly.

A journalist who skis? No way!

A journalist who skis? No way!

But to have two sprints on Saturday and two pursuits on Sunday is a lot of work for the press, and afterwards I was pooped. I ate dinner at the media center and was late getting home, only getting to hang out with Knut a little bit.

So I was pretty thrilled that Monday and Tuesday were off days from competition. Monday around lunchtime, I went downtown and hopped on a train to Lillehammer.

Side note: I love the trains in Switzerland, and for sure the country is more connected via the train system than any other country. But Norway has one thing on them: wireless. My train had perfect, fast, wifi the whole time, and I felt really spoiled. Way to go, Norway! #richcountries

My friend Erik picked me up at the train station after work and we headed up to the Birkebeiner Skistadion, the home of the 1994 Olympic trails. We had about an hour before we had to pick up his son from daycare, so we cruised around, Erik classic skiing and me skating. Erik is a good skier. I could barely keep up with him and was glad I wasn’t classic skiing! But actually, I bet he was working pretty hard too. Neither of us would say, “slow down!”

I have stayed with Erik, Emily, and their family a few times, and it is always delightful. I spent some time hanging out with their kids, playing games, drawing pictures, building obstacle courses for marbles, reading bedtime stories. I don’t generally want to have kids, but every time I hang out with their kids, I think, well, maybe…. 

After we’d put the kids to bed we watched all the available episodes of “Pling i Kollen”, the comedy news series of the World Championships created by NRK personality Nikolay Ramm and Swedish skier Robin Bryntesson. They are hilarious, even if you don’t speak Norwegian or Swedish. We were dying laughing – particularly at the fake hip hop music video made by Ramm, Tarjei Bø, and Emil Hegle Svendsen (here) or the music video “the story of biathlon.” Later in the week they did a great segment with Canada’s Macx Davies called “Macx The Man” (google it). You can find all the episodes here if you want to catch up on Norwegian ski humor.

The next day was a beautiful blue-sky day – something we hadn’t had much of in Oslo, which is often rather foggy. Erik pointed out that it might be one of the best skiing days in a while. So after dropping off the kiddo at daycare, Emily and I drove up to Sjusjøen and went for a ski! It was my first time on classic skis in two months (races in Switzerland are almost entirely skating…) and my first time on extra blue in, I don’t know, two years!? A really long time, that’s for sure.

Happiness.

Happiness.

It felt phenomenal. It was one of those days skiing where you think, this is what I was made for. Running? It’s okay. But my body is meant for skiing, and it’s the thing I love. Can this season go on forever?

I absolutely love the landscape of the Lillehammer/Sjusjøen area. It’s hard to describe to someone from most parts of the lower 48 in the U.S.: it’s not the arctic tundra. There are trees. But they are small and scrubby, and sort of sparse. The landscape is open, but not flat. It rolls away from you for what feels like it could be forever. It’s easy to get into a trance-like state of mind striding your way along these trails.

Beauty.

Beauty.

After about 15 k we were back at the car, and Emily headed home. I knew that this would probably be my best ski day all season (things were already melting back home in Switzerland), so I kept skiing. I headed down from Sjusjøen to Lillehammer on the Birkebeiner trail, which is a super fun descent, then cruised around on the Inga-Låmi trails for a while before finally skiing all the way down into the town of Lillehammer. A short ten minute walk brought me back to Erik and Emily’s house where I scarfed down some leftovers and took a much-needed shower.

I’d skied a full marathon and was rarely been happier all winter.

That afternoon Emily and I took their daughter into town to a nice coffee shop and hung out, just the girls.

The next morning I had to leave and, as always, it made me sad. I hopped on the train and then once in Oslo headed directly to the venue, where I met up with our occasional reporter and photographer JoJo Baldus, who had been at the Vasaloppet over the weekend but was now in Norway with his dad getting ready for the Birkebeiner. He was set up with a photo bib and we chatted about the Vasaloppet (not the favorite race either of us had ever done…) and photos for the day. It was the women’s 15 k individual, and it seemed possible that American Susan Dunklee might win a medal. She had been skiing out of her mind fast so far in the championships.

She didn’t, but it was a great race. It was a relief to have JoJo doing photos. I was able to get home to make some dinner for Knut, which was nice, and we caught up on a new episode of Broad City. Life was good.

The rest of the week proceeded pretty much like that: I’d ski in the morning, report in the afternoon, get home late. From my usual wake-at-6:30, bed-by-10:30 old-lady schedule, I shifted to waking up at 9 in the morning and staying up past midnight: operating on Knut time, perhaps?

The finish zone in the women's pursuit.

The finish zone in the women’s pursuit.

The highlight of the week results-wise was when the Canadian men won bronze in the men’s relay, a race that Norway won. Both things were good: the Norwegians winning meant that the stadium was loud and the atmosphere completely unbelievable. The Canadians’ result was also unreal. They are all good athletes, but it had never come together for them like that. It was crazy to watch. I was interviewing Scott Gow when Brendan Green was in his final shooting stage, in position to lock up the medal. We stopped the interview and watched the broadcast screen.

Brendan hit one, two, three, four… five shots! The bronze was theirs!

Scott looked pretty blown away and something that’s weird for me as a reporter is that, I guess I’m pretty empathetic or something, so when someone cries in an interview about retirement, tears come to my eyes. If they had a bad race, I feel bad bugging them about it. It’s a little awkward and sometimes borders on unprofessional, maybe? I can’t help it, though, so I like to think that there’s a balance between doing my job, and being empathetic, and that athletes might appreciate that I’m not totally oblivious to their state of mind. But I’m not sure.

In this case, the excitement totally caught. I’m a journalist, not a PR person working for the Canadians, yet after interviewing all of them so many times, I felt so darn excited and proud for them. While the other journalists were sort of bemused – well that’s something, isn’t it, Canada, huh – I was cheering along with Scott.

“Can I give you a hug or something?” I asked.

“Yes! Please!” he said.

And then an organizing-committee media person whisked him away: he and his teammates had to get ready, with all of their identical team-issued gear and their bibs on over their jackets, to go mob Brendan as he crossed the finish line. Sarah Beaudry and Julia Ransom, watching the race from the side of the trail above the mixed zone, shouted down to Christian Gow to change is hat so it was an official Biathlon Canada one. Good discipline, team.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

Team Canada doing a tv interview.

It was kind of a whirlwind trying to track down coaches to talk to for the story and even just to talk to the Canadians. For once, they were asked to do many, many interviews for foreign broadcasters. The written press is the last group to get access to athletes in the mixed zone, so by the time the team made it to me there were literally two minutes before they had to go to the press conference. I didn’t get to ask many questions and it made me mad: here I was, the only journalist from their home media who was here, the only one who would actually be transmitting their comments back to their fans at home. Shouldn’t I get the same chance to ask them questions? Isn’t that what their friends and family wanted?

I complained vigorously to the organizing committee media guy who had hauled them off, and he was very apologetic, but said there was nothing to be done. Luckily after the press conference I could chat with them plenty.

(I later ran into that guy at a party, and we ended up laughing: both of us are scientists for whom this was not our main job. He was just working at Holmenkollen for the week. It was fun, he said, but he was glad it was over.)

As the week wrapped up, Knut and I were able to catch up with Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee, U.S. athletes who had been our teammates at Dartmouth College. Living abroad I don’t see friends from home very often at all – in fact, they are probably the ones I have seen the most since moving to Europe in the fall of 2012. They come to Europe to race; I try to see them, or sometimes we get together in the spring after their race season is done.

It was fun to get some time together, and definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip. After all, you can find good skiing if you just have enough time and money to travel, and most of my skiing I do alone. But friends? For me, spending time with old friends, friends with whom I have a history of more than a year or two, is such a rare treat.

Now I’m back in Zurich, back to work. Every day that passes, this idea that I should be living in Oslo recedes a little further away into the back of my mind.

After all, here the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming. It’s spring. There’s plenty to be done, plenty of friends to have lawn parties with, a bit of last spring skiing to seek out, and after that, mountains to climb.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

A foggy, magical bog-forest in the marka.

Things I’ve Learned Racing in Switzerland for a Year

Lesson number one: it seems to primarily snow on Sundays, which are conveniently always race days.

Lesson number one: it seems to primarily snow on Sundays, which are conveniently always race days.

On Sunday I did the last race of my season, the 42k Gommerlauf in Valais, Switzerland. There are actually two more races in the SwissLoppet series, but I will miss them because I’m taking a trip to Norway. Having done the other seven races (it would have been eight but one was canceled because central Europe has had terrible snow problems), it seems like I’ve locked up third place in the overall series anyway. A series podium had been my goal going into the season so I’m thrilled to be able to check that box.

(It’s a lot harder to check boxes off in my academic life, so at least I have this one thing!)

The Gommerlauf was great, and definitely my favorite race I’ve done this year. Goms is not exactly a town but a region of Switzerland, a valley high up accessed by tunnels and winding mountain passes. The buildings are so old and so beautiful, and because it is fairly isolated the villages in the region don’t receive overwhelming numbers of tourists. Most people who visit in the winter come to cross-country ski.

And it’s easy to see why.

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The race was also fantastically organized. As part of the Euroloppet series, it was a bit bigger than some of the other competitions, and as such had to have a bit more order.

This was one big thing I learned: it’s very much worth thinking about what my friend Jonas called a “clever starting procedure.”

At most of the SwissLoppet races, there were maybe starting blocks or maybe not, and maybe classic tracks and maybe not (all of the ones I did were skate races). Even if there were classic tracks, however, people would fill in between the tracks so that at the start you are shoulder to shoulder packed together like sardines. This is no way to start a ski race and unsurprisingly makes the first kilometer or so chaotic, slow, and filled with yelling and broken poles.

In Goms the organizers prevented this behavior with something really simple: they placed a small cone on the start line in between each pair of classic tracks. As a result nobody lined up in this interstitial space. They removed the cones at the last possible second, the race began, and it was so much more relaxed than in any competition I’ve done this season. For me it was a huge sigh of relief.

I’m really interested in race organization, TD’ing, and how people make these decisions. But to me one of the big messages here was that if there’s what seems to be a common problem, you shouldn’t just wave your hands and say “nothing can be done” and assume everyone will deal with it. There might be a simple, but unusual, solution. You should try to find those.

In Goms they also put a few minutes in between each starting block, which also helped keep things relaxed. If all the blocks start at the same time, it’s only marginally better than if there’s no blocks at all.

Still, it’s important to get there early and put your skis on the start line, something that I’d never thought much about before because in junior, college, and USSA/FIS racing starting positions are assigned in mass starts. Much more logical but obviously not possible in a “popular race”.

Out of the start: not so stressful this time. (Photo: Alphafoto)

Out of the start: not so stressful this time. (Photo: Alphafoto)

Another thing I learned: if you have an American name, you are pretty recognizable. My name is decidedly not Swiss. By the end of the season, a few other racers knew who I was and recognized me. I endured many jokes about Americans not knowing where a country was unless we had bombed them. This is a popular joke, which we were luckily able to move past and have some nice conversations.

As was the case when I was living in Sweden, they then asked me why I was ski racing and how I seemed to know how to ski. Despite the success of Americans on the World Cup, there’s still an assumption that there’d be no reason for an American to know how to cross-country ski. I guess reputation is something that changes very slowly.

The number of times I met someone on my way to the race who then later realized that I was top five in the race and acted super surprised? It was a lot. I learned not to be offended when people asked me if I was just in the race to try to finish and have fun.

On the flip side though, it’s satisfying to succeed when people think you are incompetent.

Aside from those smaller encounters, I got to have a friendly rapport with several of the women I was usually competing against. They were incredibly nice, and when women make up such a small portion of the field (often just 10 or 20 percent) you quickly develop a camaraderie. In the end of the Gommerlauf I passed a woman who had often beaten me. It was about three kilometers from the finish and she was clearly bonking, a fate that, miraculously, I had avoided despite missing the first two feeds for various reasons.

“Hopp Hopp Chelsea!” she said as I skied past.

“Ja, Hopp!” I replied.

Some people I would also see after the race. In the U.S. we would all be in our individual cars driving home, stewing in our own analysis about how the day went. Some people drive in Switzerland, but a fair number of people take the trains and buses. It’s totally normal to be on the bus with your skis, and it creates a very different sense of community. Your trip home isn’t just thinking about your race inside your own head, but rather in this common scrum of tired, happy skiers. It’s cool and provides a real sense of community. In a few cases taking the train has even been faster than driving!

Taking the train home from the Gommerlauf.

Taking the train home from the Gommerlauf. Another thing I learned: Switzerland may be only 520 km wide, but things can be surprisingly far apart because of the mountains.

I’ve also learned a lot about myself (cheesey, I know). In the middle of the season I was fairly discouraged, but my last race was my best. I guess I have some resilience as long as I keep showing up to race every week; it’s worth pushing through.

Things go best when I’m relaxed, so I have to keep trying to make that happen. That means picking skis and wax the day before, rather than stressing about testing: I’m not trying to win a gold medal, I’m just trying to be fast enough to enjoy myself, and I don’t have so many skis so it should be obvious what to pick anyway. It also means doing a low-key warmup and enjoying the trails. It means reading books and listening to podcasts on the train instead of freaking out about the details of the races.

I’d also like do more skiing for the sake of skiing, though. This year I raced pretty much every weekend through January and February, and because of the snow situation I wasn’t able to get on snow during the week. It would be nice to have some weekends where I’m just out there enjoying the snow and skiing really far, but not in a competitive setting.

Partly for that reason, I’m not planning to do the whole Swiss Loppet series again next year, but I’m glad I did it this year and some of the races were definitely highlights that I’d like to revisit again.

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I hadn’t seen this much snow in weeks, more or less. It was great.

Is it possible to race yourself into shape?

Sedrun, Switzerland, in January 2016. This was one of just two non-racing instances where I have gotten to go skiing since the Swiss Loppet series kicked off.

Sedrun, Switzerland, in January 2016. This was one of just three non-racing instances where I have gotten to go skiing on snow since the Swiss Loppet series kicked off.

Sometime partway through 2015, I made a goal of competing in the Swiss Loppet series this winter. It is a 10-race series of half- and full marathons, almost exclusively skating, in different places around Switzerland. I reasoned that it would be fun to compete, I could probably do decently well in some of the races, and plus I’d get to tour the different cross-country ski areas of the country.

The first race was in Campra, Ticino, in early January. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the race was fairly small and a ton of fun. I finished fourth and set my sights on getting a podium by the time the season ended. (No luck yet…)

Part of that race was figuring out exactly what I was doing. I haven’t raced a ton of 20k’s or 25k’s in my life, and in fact I had only raced four or fewer times each year since I left Craftsbury in 2011. Some parts of racing you never lose: when I put on a bib I can focus and push harder than I can ever make myself go while training (maybe partly because I train alone). I’m a competitive person! And it’s so much fun to be around other people, trying to pick your line and carry your momentum so that you can use what fitness and power you have in the best way possible.

Other parts, like how to pace a longer race and when to listen to your body crashing instead of just pushing though, I was nervous that I might screw up.

But in Campra things had gone pretty smoothly.

The three ladies in front of me lived in places with snow and ski trails. I live in Zurich with no snow and no ski trails. In December I had raced La Sgambeda, where there was actually basically no skiing to be had, then gone to a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland (where there was also no skiing to be had), and then home to New Hampshire (where there was also no skiing to be had). I had very little time on snow, so I was just glad that I felt relatively coordinated and didn’t rip over myself.

The other three ladies also seemed like they might train quite a bit more professionally than I do. By that I mean, following a plan. Compared to an average person, I think I’m in okay shape. I run fairly regularly during the week and during the summer and fall I loved going on long running and hiking adventures in the Alps. But I don’t do a ton of intervals because they are the hardest thing to motivate myself to do by myself. When you train on your own, you end up doing the training you like, for better (in terms of happiness) or for worse (in terms of race prep).

Anyway, back in Campra, I told myself a story: that as the races went on, I was going to get faster. The intensity that I didn’t do during the summer (much) was coming now in the form of races. And my on-snow time was coming in those races too. I would start feeling better and more competitive as the season went on; the races would start feeling easier. Racing 20 kilometers hard every weekend has got to do something for your fitness.

I’m not sure if that was a legitimate thing to tell myself or not, physiologically speaking, but I think it was a good move mentally. The next few weeks I went into my races confident that they would start feeling smoother. I didn’t worry so much.

Then came a race in Sedrun which went in the opposite direction. The picture at the top shows sun on Saturday. On Sunday it was snowing like… whoa. My skis started off okay and then got slower and slower and slower. I had made a bad choice, probably not in terms of wax but in terms of structure. By the end, old guys were coming up behind me with so much more speed on the downhills that instead of pushing my pole basket forward, they had to just put a hand on my back and push me forward. I was WAY off the pace of those top ladies.

It was frustrating, probably more so because the weather had been so bad and it was a relatively miserable way to spend an hour and a half. I began wondering: what if I was doing the opposite of racing myself into shape? What if I just simply hadn’t done the training needed to race a Loppet every consecutive weekend, and now I was getting more and more tired?

With one more race under my belt, a fourth-place effort in Kandersteg where I was again just off the podium but felt pretty good, maybe I have a little more perspective. Or maybe it’s just time, and that directly after every tough race you always start questioning everything.

I’m not sure if I’m getting faster, but I think the races might, in general, be getting easier for me. So I’m really not sure if racing yourself into shape is a thing. Or maybe it is a thing, but I’m held back by other things like the fact that with my two jobs I can’t ever get on snow during the week or ski in between races.

The couch-to-5k phenomenon suggests yes: if you’re not in great shape and sign up for, say, a weekly 5k running series, you are doing to be demolishing your initial times by the time you’ve done five or six of them.

But if you’re in moderate shape and just not in race shape? Is there anything to be done, other than suck it up and actually train like a real athlete?

I have two more races to go, so I guess we’ll see.

Swiss baked goods you win as prizes, ranked.

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Photos, left to right: my own; Einsiedeln-tourismus.chwikipedia.

This weekend I went to Rothenthurm for a 22.5k skate loppet. Rothenthurm is quite close to Zurich and probably one of the lowest-elevation places you’ll ever race in Switzerland. The snow was not fantastic – it’s basically a moor or fen of some sort, so there’s a lot of water bubbling up. This turned into yellowish ice which was in some parts covered in a thin dusting of snow, and in others not. In a few of the drier spots there was grass poking through, or gravel dragged up by the groomer.

The ice did make it fast though – the race was over before I knew it, which was very okay!

I saw a lot of crashes in this race which were caused by peoples’ skis slipping out from under them on the ice as they pushed off one leg. It happens so fast and all of a sudden you’re on the ground. I narrowly avoided this fate twice, and the effort to keep my legs under me made me really sore the next day. At one point a spectator cheered as I managed to pull myself back together after a about six teetering strides in a row. Thanks for the support, random Swiss person! It actually means a lot! My mere 15 days on snow this year showed.

I was feeling pretty flat, but it was fun to race in a group of four women all fighting for third place. It was the first time all year that I’ve actually skied with other women in a race! Of course there were lots of men skiing with us too (and sometimes cutting in between us), but the competition is a lot of fun when you are skiing with the people you are competing directly against. I think it’s safe to say that the four of us all have very different backgrounds – one was a very talented mountain biker whose team ski races in winter for cross-training, another was a woman in a Madshus suit who apparently works on a beef farm, I’m a full-time student – but we were fighting hard out there.

In the end I wasn’t able to hit the podium for a variety of reasons. I finished fourth, 2.8 seconds out of third after 22.5 k. Argh! This was a little frustrating. Fuel for the fire next week I guess. But I won some prize money anyway, for just the fifth time ever in my career. Three of those times have been in Europe after I stopped training full-time – in France, Sweden, and Switzerland. I have to say racing is a lot more lucrative in Europe even if you’re a fairly mediocre runner or skier. It wasn’t a lot, but it was nice to be able to cover my race entry and train ticket.

Besides the cash prize, I also was given a Birnenweggen, a sweet bread from Kanton Schwyz where Rothenthurm. It came in a box and I wasn’t sure what it was until I opened it – was it food? electronics? something else? – but it turned out to be bread stuffed with pureed, spiced pear paste. Yum!

Not every baked good in Switzerland is so wonderful to win. Anyone who has done the Engadin Skimarathon has probably seen, won, or tasted a Nusstorte. After last year’s race, Holly Brooks had won one and left it at my house because she had way too much stuff to transport back to Alaska. I brought it to a dinner party at my friend Greg’s house. It was like I had arrived carrying an ugly, slimy, wart-covered frog. Actually, we were all biologists, so that would have been better. The nusstorte did not go fast.

(Holly, don’t take this personally, I was genuinely excited about it until I tried it… good thing you didn’t let it take up luggage space only to realize you had brought the worst possible souvenir from Switzerland!)

More recently, Greg and I were trying to describe Nusstorte to two American friends. It’s like a pie with two really thick crusts, stuffed with this sort of dry nut mixture. It’s so dry. “So it’s like pecan pie without the good part?” They asked. Yes! Yes! Exactly.

I’ve actually had good nusstorte, made by my friend Flurina. Maybe she has a secret. I could imagine it being better with ice cream on top. But it’s really not my favorite.

In the middle of the spectrum lie the traditional cookies from Einseideln, given in prizes at the Einsiedler Skimarathon (also close to Zurich and actually even lower elevation, but with more interesting trails than Rothenthurm and lacking that pesky water/ice problem). Einsiedler Schafböcke, as they are called, are white sort of fluffy cookies. They are delicately flavored with honey and a little bit of cinnamon and cloves. They probably won’t knock your socks off, but that’s because these days we don’t seem to be impressed by anything without pounds of sugar and huge, bold flavors. They are good.

Moral of the story: if you have a sweet tooth, enter the Rothenthurm race rather than the Engadin. First of all, you’re unlikely to bag a top-six finish in the Engadin Skimarathon, hate to break it to you (well, I’m certainly not… I guess I don’t know who is reading this). But if you can get there in a smaller Swiss Loppet, the birnenweggen is tasty and a very worthy reward for your hours of hard training.

Should you wish to try any of these Swiss specialties, you can order most online, with shipping to some places outside the country:

Birnenweggen (the Lucerne version, but I couldn’t find the Rothenthurmer Birnenweggen online)

Einsiedler Schafböcke

Bündner Nusstorte from Davos

Ladies get no respect.

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: we wished for snow, and then it snowed during the race which made things a lot slower and more grueling.... Also, pro tip, when it's obviously going to be a snowstorm, remember your glasses or visor!

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: the snow we so desperately needed came during the race, making things a lot slower and more grueling…. Also, pro tip, when it’s obviously going to be a snowstorm, remember your glasses or visor, dummy! It gets hard to see! (Photo: AlphaFoto)

This weekend my race was in Lenzerheide. All in all it was a good experience – we raced four loops around the Tour de Ski trails, with one extension and the steepest ‘A’ climb cut out.

That turned out to be a good thing, because the first rough part of the race is that it was in the middle of a snowstorm. I can’t complain too much because we have been wishing and begging for snow – the race was actually supposed to be a point-to-point but there wasn’t enough cover, hence the loops of the World Cup course – but it slowed things down considerably. Whereas the weekend before I had felt like I was flying, this weekend not so much. In the slow conditions I guarantee I would have been single-sticking up that ‘A’ climb by the fourth go-round. At least on the long grinding climb out of the stadium, which lasts for 2/3 of a kilometer, I felt like I was moving.

I struggled with the start, where skiers were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and then trying to skate all over each other’s skis, and immediately lost a lot of ground (though luckily no poles or baskets!). The few women were scattered throughout this pack and the others, having done these races before, seem to have figured out something about how to deal with the start that I have just totally missed. I caught and passed one woman after five kilometers and wanted to shout as I went by, “how did you manage that!?”

Overall it was a fun racing experience. Crossing the finish line and feeling like you have given it your all, no matter how fast or slow that ended up being, is such a great feeling. Going home feeling like you have really worked yourself over and earned your dinner is I guess what keeps us endurance junkies going.

Another week, another "I finally made it to the finish line". (Photo: AlphaFoto)

Another week, another “I finally made it to the finish line!” wave of relief. This week it was also “This means I get to put on warm, dry clothes now! Do I have to cool down?” (Photo: AlphaFoto)

After the race though, I had a bit of a sexist experience. I was hanging out with Jackson Bloch and Tyler DeAngelis, the gentlemen from 477 Kilometers who had come for the chance to race at a World Cup venue. We enjoyed some phenomenal cake at the post-race lunch and laughed our way through the awards ceremony which was, of course, conducted all in Swiss German.

The organizers called up the women’s podium: Sereina Boner had won by five minutes and, according to the timing, outsprinted the seventh-place man at the line. Go Sereina! Fellow Olympian Bettina Gruber was second, and Claudia Schmid third. The emcee did nice little interviews with each of them after handing out the awards.

Then it was time for the men’s prize ceremony. Remo Fischer had beaten Valerio Leccardi by a minute; as in the women’s race, both were Olympians. Leccardi outsprinted two others to earn second.

But… after calling up the third-place guy, the organizer just kept going. Where the women’s ceremony had featured the top three, the men’s featured the top eight.

What!? We looked at each other like, hmm, that definitely doesn’t seem right.

It’s true that many fewer women entered the race: 42 compared to 285. That is something I see every weekend and it always makes me sad.

And it’s true, full disclosure, that if they had called up eight women I would have been up there. But as I think you will see, this is definitely not why I’m mad.

Even if the women’s field is so much less deep, there is such an incredibly obvious value judgement going on when more men are recognized as prize-worthy than women.

Switzerland is a country which has already shown me all I need to know about its attitude towards women’s sports. There are many fewer female athletes at almost any co-ed sport event.

“Practising a sport in a voluntary club does not seem to be a very popular approach with women, particularly older women,” a 2011 report by the Council of Europe stated. “In Switzerland, many more men are members of clubs than women (30.6% compared to 18.9%)…. women account for only 36% of trainers and managers. This proportion decreases the higher up the sports hierarchy one goes, reaching 19% in elite sports. It is very likely that this situation has an impact on the development of women’s sport although we do not yet have any precise data on this link. On the one hand, the under-representation of women in sport’s managing bodies may mean that it is considered less necessary to implement policies designed specifically to increase women’s and girls’ involvement in sport (Koca & al., 2010). Secondly, the woman trainer represents a model with which many girls identify when they take up organised sports such as football, basketball or rugby. As a result, the over-representation of men among trainers may prevent girls from starting such activities.”

The women’s soccer team is called the Nati-Girls, which seems insulting to full-grown, elite, full-time athletes like Fabienne Humm who scored a hat-trick in just five minutes against Ecuador in this summer’s World Cup, setting a new record.

As in many places, professional athletes who are women get paid much less than their male counterparts. Their teams get less attention from the media and sponsors.

This lack of female participation or recognition extends outward from the playing field. As of 2011, although there were more and more female journalists in Switzerland, not a single newspaper had a woman running its sports section, for example.

This is not to say that there are no female athletes. Of course there are. Boner won the Ski Classics series three different years; Switzerland’s alpine skiers are phenomenal; the ice hockey team won bronze in Sochi and the curling team won 2015 World Championships; Nicola Spirig won triathlon gold in London 2012. That’s just to name a few, and there are obviously many more. These women are adored and admired by their fans.

But there’s no denying that women’s sports are generally underdeveloped and underemphasized in the country.

So when you go to a weekend race and twice as many men get recognized at the prize ceremony as women, what message does that send? Does it send a message that people are trying to fix the problem?

Not really.

That’s all.

Having said all that and complained, I have to say thank you to the men I ski with in these races - they are great. They step on my poles no more than they would step on a dude's poles, and they are nice. On the last time up the long hill I pushed really hard and passed a long train of guys. On the long downhill into the stadium, most of them went flying past me, their bank- and insurance-funded wax jobs being a bit speedier than my grand-student-salary-funded HF6. But when we crossed the line, one turned around and told me, 'wow, that was a good push' (loose translation of the Swiss German...). (Photo: AlphaFoto)

Having said all that and complained, I have to say thank you to the men I ski with in these races – they are great. They step on my poles no more than they would step on a dude’s poles, and they are nice. On the last time up the long hill I pushed really hard and passed a long train of guys. On the long downhill into the stadium, most of them went flying past me, their bank- and insurance-funded wax jobs being a bit speedier than my grand-student-salary-funded HF6. But when we crossed the line, one turned around and told me, ‘wow, that was a good push’ (loose translation of the Swiss German…). (Photo: AlphaFoto)